Watching Icebergs Go By


Day 12

One of our writing buddies, Niki, recently wrote in a comment that she “often felt like an iceberg—most of myself staying hidden from view.” I was struck by this, not because it parallels my own loneliness issues, but because it reminded me of how I felt as a high school teacher as, day after day, I looked out over my ocean of students.

I got into teaching high school primarily because I wanted to be a caring presence in the lives of teens knowing that it was a tumultuous time of life and that, at least occasionally, I might be able to be of some help.

Over 36 years, I was confronted with almost every kind of crisis—the loss of a loved one, an abusive home, a young man preparing to come out to his friends, a student discovering that her life was about to be repossessed by financial reversals about which she had known nothing.

Every one of these encounters made me acutely aware of how many other of my students must be out there, icebergs who floated by me daily, taking my quizzes, turning in papers, joking with friends, but suffering in silence.

Coincidentally, as the end of the year approached, all of my 12th graders knew that they were expected to deliver a 3-minute speech to their peers as part of a culminating activity. They had several options for a topic, but most of them chose to reflect on a personal observation, and sometimes those speeches were incredibly revealing, leading me to wonder if this activity was badly timed, since I often learned critical information about them during the last two days of school, information that would have made me a better teacher to them had I known it all semester.

I’ll write more about the speeches later, but one quiet student’s speech has always haunted me. He delivered it on the very last period of the very last day of school. He had struggled all year to maintain a passing grade. It was killing me because whenever he turned in an assignment, especially any writing assignment, it was clear that he was beyond capable. I’d pull him aside and show him how little he had to do to bring up his grade to a safe level so that graduation would be guaranteed. I regularly warned, pleaded, and cajoled him to put out just a little more effort.

In the end, it came down to his speech. If he got up and did it, he’d graduate. If not, he’d fail. When his turn came, he took his place at the podium and began. It might have been the first time he had actually had spoken up in a class activity.

Once he began to describe the year he and his father had spent coping with his mother’s terminal illness, the class lapsed into an unnatural silence. I no longer remember the particular illness, but the symptoms and complications sounded very similar to ALS or multiple sclerosis—something that was slow, degenerative, and ultimately, deadly.

And then, with great composure, he told us that this particular disease was genetic and that he had a 50% chance of having inherited it. He told us there was a test that would tell him definitively if he had the disease, if he had the condition that would ultimately lead to the painful deterioration that he had spent the past year watching in his mother. He told us that he had been struggling all year with the decision of whether to have the test or not. He told us that he had not yet made up his mind, and then he sat down.

He passed the class.

Somehow I got through the rest of the period, wished them all well, and sent them on their way to graduation and beyond.

Then I sat down and thought, “Well, fuck me.” How much more supportive a force could I have been for this kid if I had had any idea what he was going through? Of course, little assignments in Senior English seemed meaningless to him. Of course, he was getting by on minimum effort. Why in the world did he decide to tell us all on the last day of school?

I don’t have a savior complex. Even if I had known, I know I couldn’t have made his year that much easier. He was just one more iceberg that got past me.

Just A Few Things I Don’t Understand About Women

Day 11

First, let me say that I love women. Love them. Could not live without the lovely friend and partner who has been my wife over the past 41 years or any of the women I’m lucky enough to have as friends. And this writing group seems to be populated by so many brilliant and thoughtful women. It has been a pleasure to get to meet you all. In fact, the fact that I get confused by the behavior of women is probably entirely my fault.

Have I put in enough disclaimers that I can broach this subject now?

Gift giving. I have always thought that on any occasion it was best to give your friend or partner something that you know that she wants.   So, early in our marriage, when I the electric wok that I purchased for my wife as an anniversary present was met with less than enthusiasm, I was confounded. I knew it was something she wanted. She had said so repeatedly. To explain her disappointment she actually sat me down and told me, slowly and using small words, that kitchenware of any kind was just not an appropriate gift for special, personal occasions. Honest to God, I had no idea. Where was the manual for gift-giving procedures?

Christmas gift giving seems to be more easy-going. Three months, three full months, before a recent Christmas, my wife saw a hanging lamp in a favorite boutique shop that she declared to be the perfect replacement for a dated chandelier-type lamp that had hung in our dining room for years and years. However, she declined to buy it at the time, and I swooped in like a shark. The very next week, I went back on my own, bought the lamp and put it away. On Christmas day, I saved it for after she had opened the more personal gifts (having learned my lesson from the wok debacle), and she seemed truly surprised and delighted as she unwrapped it and opened it up. Hah! I knew it! Perfect gift, perfect surprise! Then she made maybe the most contradictory statement I have ever heard any woman say, “Gosh, honey, this is great, but just because I say I want something doesn’t mean you have to rush out and buy it for me.” WHAT!!?? I thought it was EXACTLY what we were supposed to do. I thought it was exactly what the attentive and thoughtful spouse would be expected to do after 40 years of careful observation. Hmmmm.

Those three little words. Every partner cares about three little words. However, I suspect that the exact words may be gender specific. For me, there is nothing more heart-warming, nothing more life-affirming than hearing my wife whisper in my ear, “you were right.” On the two or three occasions per year that this happens, I usually feign deafness so I can have her repeat it once again, just to extend the satisfaction of the moment.

The expectation of the power of mind reading. As a high school English teacher I worked primarily with female colleagues and individually, I could hold my own with them. But once they assembled in a friendly group, they would all begin talking at once with lots of gesturing, head-nodding, eye-rolling. I would watch them smiling, frowning, smirking all in quick succession all leading to a lull and a sense on my part that something had been decided. Finally, as the token male I would be asked, “What do you think about it, Tom?”

“About what?” I’d ask.

Ah, thank goodness I get to stop at 500 (actually 600) words. I suspect I am in enough trouble already.